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October 31st, 2015.
“This is President Wayne,” Dwayne said calmly. He’d nodded off to sleep and was awaken by the sound of his phone chiming. He looked at his phone but didn’t recognize the number.
“You sure are, young man.” Dwayne smiled instantly. He recognized that voice anywhere.
“How are you, Mrs. Huxtable?” Dwayne asked. “Is everything alright?”
“Of course, my dear,” Mrs.. Huxtable answered. “I apologize for calling so late. I’m actually calling from my home phone. Did I wake you? I hope I didn’t.”
“No mam, you didn’t,” Dwayne answered, relieved at the familiar voice on the other end of the phone.
“Good,” she answered. “You were on my mind so heavy this morning. I tried to ignore it, but I just couldn’t. I tried to wait until a decent hour. But I am so glad to hear that you are up. I feel a lot less guilty, now.”
Dwayne laughed.. “It’s always good to hear from you Mrs. Huxtable. Don’t ever hesitate to call me. You’re like a second mother to me.”
“More like a third,” She corrected. “I wouldn’t dream of challenging Marion Gilbert for that second mother spot. I’ll politely take my place as mother number 3. ”
Dwayne laughed again. “You’re right about that,” he assured. There was a brief silence over the phone.
“So, are you ready for convocation tomorrow…well, this morning?” She asked.
“Uh…I’m…I’m…getting ready now,” he said.
“You sound…unnerved,” she replied. “Are you nervous?”
“I wouldn’t say its nerves, Mrs. Huxtable,” Dwayne answered.
“So what would you call it then?” She asked.
Dwayne paused. He had not shared that he was on the verge of resigning with a single person. It was a decision he’d been stewing over for the better part of three months. Not even Whitley knew his intentions.
“Well..” he began. “I have been doing a lot of thinking lately and…”
“And what?” Mrs. Huxtable interrupted.
“And…I…just….I don’t know.” Dwayne finally confessed.
“What is it that you think you don’t know, Dwayne?” She asked.
There was another long silence between the two.
“Dwayne?” She called his name.
“Yes mam?” He answered.
“You’re thinking about resigning aren’t you?” She asked bluntly. There was another extended silence between the two of them.
“Can I be honest, Mrs. Huxtable?” Dwayne asked.
“Of course,” she answered.
“I don’t know if I am cut out for this,” Dwayne confessed. “This may not be my calling. I don’t know if I’m equipped to handle all that’s coming at me right now. I feel like I am such a failure. ”
“As you should,” she answered.
“What do you mean?” He asked. perplexed at her statement.
“My dear,” she began, “God does not call the equip, he equips The Called.”
“I don’t think I understand,” Dwayne admitted.
She laughed. “Did I ever tell you the story of the time I met Dr. King?” Claire asked.
“You mentioned your encounter with him briefly,” he reminded her.
“Oh…” she began, “Well lend me your ear, my son. Allow me to tell you the time Dr. King reminded me why Hillman must live forever.” Dwayne set back in his chair and let his mentor reminisce. He re-lit his pipe and listened intently.
April 4 1968
Washington DC: Howard University
“I still cannot advocate for a non-violent response, no matter how many times you re-arrange the same argument,” Stokely asserted. The meeting between him and Claire was now going on hour two and they were no closer to an agreement than they were when she had arrived on campus earlier in the day.
“I am a fierce advocate for self-defense,” Claire retorted, “But in order for the Poor People’s Campaign to be as effective as possible, we have to declare a pledge of non-violence.”
“And why is that?” Stokely asked. “Why must we declare a pledge of non-violence? How much sense does that make to you? We are already asking people to come and live in a tent city on the lawn of the US Capitol for an extended period of time. Aside from the unpredictable weather conditions, the shortage of food, money, and uncomfortable accommodations, you want these people to go about with these discomforts AND be unarmed and defenseless? Claire, surely have more sense than you’re portraying at the moment.”
“Stokely,” Claire said, agitation growing in her voice, “We can talk as leaders to try and reach a sensible resolve without it coming to personal attacks. You should understand more than anyone that this movement will not work without Howard. King needs Howard. King needs you.”
“And you should understand, Claire,” Stokely began, equally agitated, “As President of the Student Body of Hillman, that to march your students into a tent city defenseless is a recipe for slaughter. I am sorry, but I will not get caught up in the intellectual masturbation of the question of whether or not self-defense is a feasible answer to white hatred. It is simply non-negotiable. The next time you speak with King tell him that I have not changed my mind and I cannot advise the students of Howard University to participate in the Poor People’s Campaign.”
The ride back to Hillman was one filled with silence . Claire, still seething from her meeting with Stokely, was somewhat ashamed at having to go back and tell King that Stokely, arguably the most visible alumnus of Howard University, would not push its student government to participate in the organizing efforts. “Can you turn the radio on?” Claire asked from the backseat. The sounds of Otis Redding’s version of “A Change is Gonna Come” came over the car’s speakers. Claire’s mind drifted back to the conversation she’d had earlier in the week with King over the phone. He made it a point to call her personally every week to ensure Hillman’s involvement with the Poor People’s Campaign that was to take effect the following month. They’d been in close contact since he reached out to her immediately following her win as the Student Body President the previous year.
Claire thought back to earlier in the semester when she and the Student Government had secretly arranged for King to address students regarding the campaign in the campus chapel. President Doyle had denied King entrance to campus and Claire risked her presidency and academic career to ensure he was able to address the students of Hillman. But she didn’t mind the risk; that’s how much she believed in his vision.
“I’ve been impressed with you ever since our first conversation on the phone,” her told her in a private meeting just between the two after he addressed the students. “Your willingness to assist the SCLC in this campaign will only aid us in our impending victory.”
They chatted briefly about policy and law – Claire’s first loves – and their faith. Their brief and private encounter soon led to a conversation lasting over two hours. “
I should go,” King said standing to leave the chapel, but not before pulling a book out of his bag.
“But before I depart, I have a gift for you.” King handed Claire a copy of Marcus Garvey’s A Message To The People.
“Thank you so much, Dr. King,” she replied filled with gratitude.
“It is certainly my pleasure,” he remarked turning to leave. “It is important for student leaders to know how integral organization is to our survival. It is only through organization that our institutions will stand the test of time. Negro institutions,” he began as he exited the room, “must stand the test of time, and with that, Hillman Must Live Forever.”
“DIRECT FROM OUR NEWSROOM IN WASHINGTON AND MEMPHIS…”
Claire’s thoughts were interrupted by the the announcer over the radio.
“WE INTERRUPT YOUR SCHEDULED PROGRAMMING TO BRING YOU THIS BREAKING BULLETIN: MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR, LEADER OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT, WAS SHOT AND KILLED IN MEMPHIS TODAY.”
There was a collective gasp in the car. Claire, alone in the backseat, tried to process what she’d just heard. Lynn, her secretary and friend, was in the front seat and had begun screaming uncontrollably. Melvin, the driver and her usually mellow vice-president, pulled the car off of the road.
MARTIN LUTHER KING WAS RUSHED TO AN AREA HOSPITAL WHERE HE DIED AN HOUR LATER. HE WAS 39.”
Lynn’s screams filled the car as Melvin was now shaking frantically in the driver’s side. Claire, still processing the news, could barely think straight from all of the screaming.
“Lynn!” Claire yelled from the backseat., “You are going to have to get a hold of yourself.” She turned her attention to Melvin. “Are you able to drive, Melvin?” She asked. Claire could see his arms trembling as his hands clutched the steering wheel. “Move to the passenger side, Lynn come back here, I’ll drive,” she commanded calmly as she exited the car. Lynn was now crying hysterically and Melvin had begun to breathe erratically on the passenger side.
Clarie walked around to the driver’s side, got in, and buckled her seat belt. “I need you to hold it together, Melvin,” she asserted as she put the car in Drive. Claire’s hands were shaking and a single tear had weld up in her eyes but she kept herself and her emotions in tact. “Lynn,” Claire said calmly from the front seat as she eased back into traffic, “Reach into my purse and grab a tissue. I cannot drive with you crying so hysterically. Please calm down. “
Lynn fidgeted through Claire’s purse and did exactly as she was told. Claire turned up the radio to drown out her whimpering. By now, they were pulling unto the main road at the bottom of the hill that lead to campus. “Is that…smoke?” Melvin asked. Claire crept the car up the long road toward campus as smoke came billowing from what looked to be a building on campus. Several cars were rushing by in the opposite direction. Students were hanging out of the windows. Some were waving guns in the air. Claire flagged down an oncoming car. She let her window down.
“What’s going on up there? She yelled across the street. Traffic on both sides was beginning to pile up behind both vehicles. “Dr. King got killed tonight,” the driver of the car shouted back. “Students are at the President’s house. They’ve already set the Carver building on fire and are threatening to burn his house down.”
Claire put her foot on the gas as hard as she could. The closer she got to campus, the more the car smelled of burning wood. Lynn’s cries grew louder as they arrived on campus. Their car was flagged down as they entered the gates of campus by a group of students on the side of the road. The circled the car peeping through the windows.
“What are you guys doing?” Claire asked in confusion. “Making sure you ain’t bringin no crackahs up here!” One of them answered. “Why are you doing this? What are you proving by doing this?” She asked. “They Killed King! An eye for an eye!” One of the students screamed.
Claire punched the gas again and pulled her car unto the campus entrance. She pulled a sharp left on Franklin Road and raced toward the President’s house. Campus was in chaos. The Carver building, now in full view, was engulfed in flames. Students were running about as full panic mode had set in on the campus of Hillman College. Some students were sitting on the stairs of their dormitory crying; some had managed to climb to the roof of the building. There was a steady stream of students heading toward The President’s house. The closer Claire got to the home, the more difficult it became to navigate the bodies that were filling the streets.
“I’m going to have to go on foot,” she said as she unbuckled her seat belt. “Melvin, drive Lynn back to her dorm. Round up as many SGA folks as you can and meet me in the student union.” Melvin did as he was told. He leaped out of the passenger side and got into the driver’s side. Claire removed her heels and, with them in hand, ran the remaining way to the home of President Doyle.
She fought her way through the crowd as students crowded the lawn. President Doyle, wearing nothing but a bathrobe and slippers, pleaded with students to disperse. “I understand you all are upset,” he yelled over the megaphone, “But burning this house down proves what?”
“You banned him from campus!” One student screamed.
“I did it to protect you!” President Doyle pleaded. Claire emerged from the crowd. President Doyle quickly grabbed her hand and pulled her to the porch. “Oh Thank God,” he sighed in relief. “Here, calm them!” He pushed the megaphone into Claire’s hands. Several students from her administration had begun quieting the crowd. Some students actually cheered at the sight of Claire. She took a few moments to catch her breath.
“Please, Please,” Claire pleaded. She struggled to catch her breath as she spoke. “If I could just have your attention for a moment. Within moments, A hush came over the crowd.
“There is no one here more angry or troubled at what happened tonight than myself. I heard the news on the radio just as I was coming from Washington DC this evening. I was meeting Stokely Carmichael to – ” Cheers broke out at the mention of his name. Soon a “Stoke-ly! Stoke-ly!” chant rose from the back of the crowd.
“Please,” she began, taking the time to gather the last of her breath. “Stokely and I were discussing ways in which we could assist King in the largest demonstration he had planned to date. He specifically called on Hillman to assist him in this campaign and contrary to popular belief, and despite President’s Doyle’s best efforts, King found his way unto campus on numerous occasions. ” Many in the crowd cheered at Claire’s words. They were reminded of King’s secret visit to campus in the wee hours of the morning and addressed a crowd of nearly 200 students undetected and without incident.
“That was the kind of man King was, and more importantly, that is how much he loved this campus; That is how much he loved you.” Cheers came from the crowd. Claire continued:
“King more than anybody understood the importance of Hillman and our institutions. He spoke passionately about what he meant to attend a Black school and what it meant to fight on behalf of one. There have been too many deaths, too many sacrifices,and too much blood shed on the grounds of this campus for a handful of misguided individuals to send this campus up in smoke. Some of these buildings, including the one that burns just east of here, were built by the bare hands of ex-slaves – slaves who sold fruit and and washed clothes to raise the funds to lay the first bricks on this land. Yet here we are – here we stand. It is here, perched on The Highest Hill of Virginia that our beloved institution sits with its mission to serve all who are called. King reminded me in our very last conversation that it was vital that our institutions live on. We have already done more destruction tonight to our own campus than any Klansman could ever do. Now I won’t ask you to refrain from burning down this house, or any other building on campus; that would be in vein. You will do what you will and on your own accord. But if you burn down the buildings built by the hands of former slaves, then we, their grandchildren, and Hillman’s faithful, will re-build. No amount of destruction will dare impede our progress. King wouldn’t stand for it and neither will I. So, if you do nothing else tonight, keep yourself cloaked in the understanding that this institution must thrive until the end of time; Despite whatever comes our way, Hillman. Must. Live. Forever!”
The crowd erupted in cheers. “Hill-Man!” “Hill-Man!” chants broke in pockets across the crowd.
“So go home, tonight,” Claire pleaded. “Go back to your dorms. Cry; bury your heads in your pillows and let it out. Scream into the air. Pray until your knees go numb. But just do so in the safety of your dorm. The streets of Virginia and DC will only get worse throughout the night. Go home to your dorms and mourn to yourself. Then tomorrow, we will come together and prepare a fight so vicious in nature that anyone who dares uphold the premise of White Supremacy will surely meet their unfortunate demise at hands of The Mighty Hillmanite and we will do so in the name of King!”
The crowd cheered as President Doyle pulled Claire to the side. “Thank you, Clarie,” he said relieved. “Don’t thank me,” she replied sternly, “All I have done is put a lid on a boiling pot. The heat is still on. They may stay calm through the night. I hope you have a contingency plan in place come morning.”
With that, Claire handed President Doyle the megaphone and departed into the crowd. Scores of students walked side by side with her as she headed to her dorm. By now, a fire truck had found its way unto campus and was battling the blaze set at the Carver building. Several SGA officials, on their way to the emergency meeting she called earlier, offered quick hugs as they hurried to the student union building. Claire shook hands with students who told her of her inspiring words. She smiled graciously as freshmen boys pushed one another to statue themselves next to her.
By the time Claire had reached the steps of the Ida B. Wells Dormitory, nearly 50 students had followed her. As she took to the steps, students cheered in admiration of their brave leader who had ceased the burning of campus armed only with her words. Claire entered the lobby and walked down the hall way. There were several girls, seemingly still shaken by the news, sobbing in the hallways.
She entered her room and closed the door. There and alone in the dark, the grief she’d been holding since she heard the news on the radio fell on top of her. She fell to the floor under its weight and began to sob. Her cries were loud and forceful and her body ached with grief. Claire’s cries grew louder but she didn’t care. She struggled to stand to her feet but the grief wouldn’t allow her do so. The shrill of the her dorm room phone startled her slightly.
Claire stumbled over to answer the phone. She was in no mood to talk but assumed that it was her mother who by now had gotten the tragic news and was calling to check on her. She tried as best she could to pull herself together.
“H-Hello?” she said, struggling to hold back the tears.
“It’s Stokely.” The sound of a familiar voice sent Claire into uncontrollable sobs again. Her cries struck a chord in Stokely who, like Claire, had not had the time or the space to process the news of King’s murder. He found himself struggling to find the words to comfort Claire but there were none. Stokely’s emotions got the best of him and he quietly began to weep on the phone. With Claire on one end, and Stokely on the other, the two cried into the phone until they drifted off to sleep late in the morning hours.